Younger audience flocks to Hub for avant-garde Jewish theater

For two years, The Hub has been one of the Bay Area's most innovative launching pads for Jews in the performing arts.

But with construction of a glittering new theater nearing completion, The Hub's vagabond ways may be coming to an end before long.

Inauguration Day is approaching for the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco's new 130,000-square-foot headquarters at the corner of California and Presidio streets. Slated to open in December 2003, the facility will also boast a 500-seat theater, to be named Kanbar Hall.

And The Hub has a standing invitation to make a home of it.

"When the new building opens next year, we're not sure what will happen with us," says Amy Tobin, The Hub's founder and artistic director.

Whether or not Tobin, 28, chooses to make the new theater The Hub's permanent address, she remains dedicated to her unique artistic vision.

Under the aegis of the JCC of S.F., The Hub has presented a string of well-received theatrical events over the past two years, all featuring emerging local Jewish artists.

According to Tobin, The Hub is about creating "a place of community for Jews in their 20s and 30s, and to prove that Jewish performance art is as viable as any other kind of night on the town."

A graduate in experimental theater from the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts in New York, Tobin is a recipient of a fellowship from Joshua Venture, an S.F.-based national organization that awards young Jewish social entrepreneurs. She is also a respected writer-composer-performer in her own right.

"We're reaching out to a community not always so engaged Jewishly," she says. "Now we have a growing constituency, and we're building up a community of artists."

The Hub is funded by the JCC, as well as various local and national arts foundations.

Though Jewish content remains a constant with every Hub production, one of Tobin's goals all along has been to seek intercultural dialogue.

Earlier this year, she staged a memorable multicultural Sukkot event that emphasized the theme of displacement from the home. Notes Tobin, "In addition to Jewish artists, we had Sri Lankan, Sicilian and African American artists participating."

One of the most anticipated Hub events is the annual Purim party.

Picture a jam-packed North Beach nightclub. On stage, a "Rocky Horror"-style Purimshpiel is under way. To the beat of a hip-hop DJ, an actress in drag plays Mordechai as a sleazy Las Vegas lounge lizard. Haman is played as Marlene Dietrich decked out in fishnet stockings and top hat. The crowd, mostly Jewish Gen-Xers, goes wild.

Obviously not a garden-variety Megillah reading.

In October, The Hub presented musician/storyteller Tim Barsky's "As if in Sleep." The one-man show weaved Barsky's eclectic interests — from hip-hop music to Irish myth to Jewish folklore — into what one local critic called "the most teeming, inventive and good-spirited production in the city right now."

Jeff Raz, director of "As if in Sleep" (his third Hub project), loves working with Tobin and The Hub. "Amy is a great impresario," says Raz. "She knows production, but she's also an artist. So she knows how to produce an event that's right for the art."

Part of that skill is finding the right theater. For most of The Hub's presentations, Tobin has booked various clubs around the city, such as Cafe du Nord, the Velvet Lounge and the Exit Theater, where Barksy's play enjoyed a four-week run.

For the months ahead, Tobin has several events planned, including an evening with media critic and culture commentator David Rushkoff, who will read from his new book, "Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism."

Also on tap, a dual performance by Israeli singer Victoria Hanna and Frank London of the Klezmatics, as well as a presentation of several works-in-progress commissioned by The Hub.

Perhaps most excitingly for Tobin herself is an all-new upcoming Purim play (The Hub's fourth annual), this time to be disguised as a full-out rock opera co-written by Tobin and artistic partner Amichai Lau-Levi. That event takes place March 17.

It will tackle tough issues underlying the Purim story, in particular war, genocide and the death penalty. "At the end of the Megillah, 75,000 non-Jews die," says Tobin. "We need to talk about that."

With edgy programming, aggressive advertising and very affordable tickets (around $15), Tobin has few worries about The Hub appealing to her target audience.

"There's a ton of Jewish talent out there," says Tobin, "and that means there's a lot of room to build an arts community in the Bay Area."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.